Sharon Walls

:World Health Day

When the world feels uncertain, we look for the good. When we realise that healthcare systems are fragile, we look for security. When we feel that our health is at risk, we look for the helpers. Tuesday the 7th of April is World Health Day, a day set aside by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to focus on the impact quality medical care has on the world around us. This year’s theme focuses on two healthcare professions essential to the work we do: nurses and midwives, who spend their lives providing vital health services. Whether we are in a state of emergency or not, these healthcare workers around the world respond to need with consistent love and service.

This pandemic has changed the healthcare environment. It affects all of us. Our social lives, daily routines, family outings, work, the economy and especially those who have contracted the virus. In the midst of all of this stress and uncertainty, our healthcare workers are doing everything they can to take care of others.

For over 40 years, Mercy Ships has acknowledged the fragility of healthcare systems around the world. Healthcare professionals onboard our hospital ships have served in more than 50 countries. And, on World Health Day, we want to take a moment to lift them up.

It’s encouraging that when there’s a need, this remarkable group of people are quick to respond. We often talk about how lives have been transformed onboard our ships. Those transformations are dependent on many processes, but the role our healthcare professionals serve is vital. Even though we know that together we care and that together we are Mercy Ships, we couldn’t do what we do without the helpers who are there to care for those who are most vulnerable.

“Mercy Ships creates the opportunity to use your specific skills to bring something important to a country that is not available there. This is done without taking an opportunity away from the local population,” Christina van der Zande, volunteer Palliative Care Nurse Team Leader, said. “We fulfil an immediate need by supplementing the care available in the country with our specialised surgical care, post-op care, and palliative care. And, at the same time, we want to work ourselves out of a job by training others through our various Medical Capacity Building programs.”

Our volunteers do so much to help support the healthcare systems of the countries we serve. And while providing life-changing surgeries to those in need is a vital part of the Mercy Ships mission, for patients like Koumba, it’s the difference between a life in continuous pain or a life pursuing her passion.

For over 16 years, Koumba has been serving in her village, bringing new life into the world as a midwife. But about five years ago, her future took an unexpected shift when she noticed a lump starting to develop on her neck. Even with her years of medical experience, Koumba couldn’t access the surgical care she needed. Without an operation, she was fearful of the growing goitre, which made it more difficult for her to do the work she loved.

Koumba was thrilled when she heard about the possibility of surgery onboard the Africa Mercy. She quickly travelled to the hospital ship in search of healing.

 

“My whole village is praying for me — they all want me to get help here so that I can keep helping them,” she said. “I want to be able to keep doing this work. There is nothing like it.”

While onboard the ship, Koumba received surgery to remove the painful goitre and was soon on the road to recovery.

“This surgery has brought me so much happiness,” she said. “I can move without pain now. When I go back to the village, I’ll be able to work more than before…I gave help, and I received help. This is happiness.”

There are hundreds of stories like Koumba’s whose lives were forever changed, but none of them would be possible without those who stand beside us — the dedicated volunteers who give of their time and their abilities and our partners, people who give of their resources generously. When we all come together, we are able to provide hope and healing to the forgotten poor.

“I’ve been working in Africa for more than 35 years, and you see people lose their life because they didn’t have access to a simple antibiotic or because they couldn’t afford surgery,” Rosa Whitaker, President of Mercy Ships, said. “So we’re here to help. We’re here to partner. We’re here to provide hope. We’re here to collaborate. We’re here to serve.”

In times of uncertainty, we look for the good. When healthcare systems are fragile, we look for security. When our health is at risk, we look for the helpers. While acknowledging these emotions, we also believe in HOPE. We’re not alone. Together we love, together we give, together we care, together we overcome. Thank you for your ongoing support, your prayers, and for your generous hearts. We look forward to reaching even more people in need and increasing medical capacity worldwide in the coming years. Together we are Mercy Ships!

 

Sharon Walls

March 30

The global COVID-19 situation has made it impossible for Mercy Ships to continue to carry out our surgical programs to the required standards while protecting against the possible spread of the virus. Therefore, in line with the measures taken by the President of Senegal and in consultation with the Ministry of Health, Mercy Ships has reviewed the activities associated with the Africa Mercy and made the decision to suspend the programmatic activities in Senegal.

Although the Africa Mercy is a medical ship, it is essentially a surgical specialist unit and is not suited to provide care for patients with highly contagious respiratory diseases. The current unprecedented situation has presented a unique operational challenge. With the global air transport shutdown, volunteer professionals were unable to come and serve on our vessel.  Additionally, many of our medical volunteers have been asked to assist with the COVID -19 crisis in their home countries.

We are now expediting the annual routine maintenance for the Africa Mercy with the aim to be back in Africa as soon as possible, and once the global COVID-19 situation allows, continuing our mission to bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor.

Our teams continue to evaluate the COVID-19 situation globally and research how we can best stand together with our partner nations, crew and staff in these challenging times. Actions taken include:

  • Working to transition key Medical Capacity Building programs to an on-line /remote delivery methodology in order to continue to train medical professionals in Africa. Specifically focused on content surrounding the care of critically ill patients.  These skills are integral to caring for both surgical patients and those with COVID -19 infections
  • Providing continued support to the Gamal Dental School capacity Building program by temporarily using remote on-line tools
  • Donation of USD $150,000.00 to the COVID-19 fund in Senegal to be used in the prevention and cure of COVID-19 cases
  • Repatriation of 180 or our crew, mostly medical professionals, back to their home countries
  • Donation of medical supplies from our logistic centre in the USA for use in local hospitals, fire departments, elderly homes, e.g.
  • Evaluation to donate medical and other supplies from our logistic centre in the Netherlands
  • Ongoing review of how best support global communities

For over 40 years, we focus on bringing hope and healing to those we serve. For the past 30 years, we have concentrated our efforts in Africa. During those three decades, we have worked to strengthen local healthcare systems.

We are encouraged by the good results we have realized through direct surgical care for patients and by training local healthcare professionals. Today these healthcare professional we trained in the past, are now frontline worker in the battle against COVID-19 in their respective countries.

As we face these challenging events, we would like to thank you for your ongoing prayers and support to our mission to bring hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor.

FAQ’s

Have any COVID-19 infections been detected on the Africa Mercy?

Up to this point none of our patients nor crew onboard the Africa Mercy have presented with the COVID-19 infection. Crew shore leave was suspended and additional measures of hygiene and social interaction has been implemented in order to prevent infection onboard.

Why can’t the Mercy Ships be deployed to help against Coronavirus Spread?

Although the Africa Mercy is a hospital ship, it is essentially a surgical specialist unit. The vessel is not suited to take care of patients with a highly contagious respiratory disease.

Mercy Ships relies on a volunteer staffing model using professional medical volunteers from around the world. The current unprecedented situation has presented a unique operational challenge as many of our medical volunteers have been asked to assist with the COVID -19 crisis in their home countries. In addition, the global air transport shutdown has resulted in our inability to continue to operate the hospital facility safely.  Mercy Ships is also evaluating how the organization, given certain operational limitations, can be utilized to assist in the global COVID-19 response.

 How are the patients onboard?  What was accomplished in Senegal before the crisis hit?

The last patients and their caregivers left the vessel on March 23. Despite the suspension of our activities, we are grateful that during the Africa Mercy’s 8-month stay (we had planned to be in Senegal for  10 months) in the port of Dakar, Republic of Senegal, Mercy Ships provided over 1,400 life-changing surgeries onboard (from the planned 1,200-1,700). Volunteer medical professionals treated over 5,500 dental patients (we had planned for 4,000) at a land-based dental clinic as well as provided healthcare training to 1,270 local medical professionals (initial plans were from 1,000 to 1,500) through mentoring and courses in partnership with 17 hospitals throughout Senegal.

How are the patients who cannot have surgery now? 

This challenging situation worldwide means that some of our patients are now unable to have the surgery they had hoped for in Senegal. As we define options for our future programmatic activities in Africa, we take into account a possible return to Senegal to finish our mission once the restrictions ease.

What about the volunteers onboard?

After Mercy Ships reviewed the activities associated with the Africa Mercy and made the decision to suspend the programmatic activities in Senegal, no new patients were admitted. Following the decision not to take on further patients, a number of short-term crew volunteers and Senegalese day crew supported by Mercy Ships to return home to their countries and incoming volunteer travel cancelled. The crew onboard of the vessel today will sail the vessel to its next destination. We are grateful for their efforts in recent months in these uncertain times.

Is the Africa Mercy leaving Senegal and where is it going next?

Yes, the Africa Mercy is leaving Senegal two months earlier than planned to begin the ship’s yearly maintenance according to maritime regulations. Our aim is to use this advanced maintenance to bring the Africa Mercy back to Africa so that we can continue our mission to bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor once the restrictions ease.
Mercy Ships is also evaluating how, given our operational limitations, the ship can be utilized to assist in the global COVID-19 response

What can I do to support Mercy Ships at this time?

During this challenging season, we ask you to please pray for our crew and volunteers and for our offices around the world, many of whom are joining the ranks of those working from home and in lockdown situations within their countries. We also pray for our donors and friends around the world, knowing that these are uncertain times around the world. Your support, which is even more crucial now to help Mercy Ships so that we can continue provision of surgical care as soon as the situation permits.

Can I still reach the Mercy Ships Office in New Zealand?

Yes, the Mercy Ships New Zealand office is still available during office hours a telephone answering service being monitored at 0800637297.  If you leave a message with your query and full details, one of the Mercy Ships staff will call or email you back as soon as necessary.  Or you can email msnz@mercyships.org

Can I still visit the Mercy Ships office?

During the current pandemic, we have allowed or asked our staff to work from home as much as possible.  As the situation is changing weekly around the world, we request that contact can be made by telephone or email.

As we face these challenging events, we would like to thank you for your ongoing prayers and support to Mercy Ships and our mission to bring Hope and Healing to the world’s forgotten poor.

 

For questions or further information, please contact:

Diane Rickard, International media liaison

diane.rickard@mercyships.org

or

Jitze Kramer, VP Global Branding

Jitze.kramer@mercyships.org

 

Sharon Walls

Leaving a sustainable dental care footprint

A unique perspective on providing sustainable dental care in Guinea, West Africa

Since 1978 the international hospital ship charity Mercy Ships has ‘hope and healing’ to the world’s forgotten poor by offering specialised surgeries, medical and dental training. Using the transportable platform of the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy, the faith-based NGO spends 10 months at a time providing essential surgical and healthcare services to developing nations. The port city of Conakry was the hub of the NGO’s work for a fourth time, from August 2019 to June 2020.

“Mercy Ship runs on the goodwill of volunteers who give their time and skills to serve,” explains Dr Loo. “People from many nations, different cultures and languages all work together. It is a diverse community made up of incredible individuals. Many of these inspiring volunteers have dedicated years of their life away from home, foregoing a stable income and society’s mainstream definition of success.

“There were a number of factors that made practising dentistry vastly different than back home in New Zealand. The level of poverty, lack of education/awareness, lack of access to healthcare and medicine are a lot more significant in this part of the world. As a result we saw patients come in with enormous facial swellings that would have never been allowed to progress that far in New Zealand or another developed country.

“Due to the lack of access to antibiotics, dental abscess from an infected tooth could very well be a death sentence; a sad truth which is unheard of back home.

“Many of the patients with large untreated yet benign facial tumours had conditions which to developed large size, causing stigmatisation among their own community. They were inflicted with shame and some were outcast as a result.  These patients received free surgery on board the ship.

“Guinea is predominantly Muslim, with French widely spoken alongside a myriad of local languages. So during my days working at the dental clinic I would greet patients coming in or treatment in their local language of Fula, Onjarama (how are you?). I’ll never forget the delight on their faces when they heard the greeting in their own language.”

During the tour of duty in Guinea, parallel to patient care the Mercy Ships dental programme focused on empowering and enabling the local dental colleagues, a key way forward for the nation’s dental care system.

A CASE STUDY IN DENTAL SUSTAINABILITY – Dental Partner Unit Mentoring Programme

In addition to the Mercy Ships dental clinic which typically sees around 50 patients a day, a large dental project took place in partnership with Gamal Abdel Nasser University of Conakry.

Mentoring was provided over 10 months for thirteen dentists, dental school staff and a total of seventy-one dental students (45 men and 26 women).  The project included extensive renovations of the entire first floor of the dental school and the donation of the necessary dental equipment for the school to fully integrate clinical training into their curriculum for students.  The renovations and equipping allow the school to have an 8-chair student dental clinic, a 3-chair faculty dental clinic, a dental simulation lab, administrative offices for the dental school, and a dental laboratory.  To ensure that the equipment receives proper maintenance and repairs, our Biomedical Facilitator conducted an eight-day training course specifically for the donated equipment.

The medical capacity building courses sought to improve the sterile processing practices used by technicians in Guinea’s hospitals and clinics.  Twenty-two participants attended the Sterile Processing Course in Conakry.  Following the course, fifteen were selected for additional training-of-trainers in order to be better equipped to train others.

A nutritional agriculture course was conducted with 32 participants (26 men and 6 women) from five non-government organizations from seven regions of Guinea, who received train-the-trainer instruction in nutritionally based, biologically and ecologically sustainable agriculture.  The course included both classroom and hands-on instruction; training in food transformation and measures to respond effectively to climate change impacts on agricultural practice and output. After the 22 weeks of training, the new trainers returned home to set up their own agriculture training project.

The impact made in Guinea during that 10-month period included the training of 1,099 local participants in healthcare courses, the provision of more than 41,000 free dental procedures,  and 2,442 free essential surgeries in orthopaedic, maxilla-facial, burns and plastics, obstetric fistula, paediatric general and ophthalmic specialities.

Dr Loo’s most meaningful Mercy Ships experiences included some non-dental interactions outside the clinic. “During the weekends I had the opportunity to help at an orphanage; Hope Village. We spent the day making crafts, singing, dancing and sharing a meal with the children. I had opportunity to learn from the lady in charge of the orphanage who shared her experiences going through the recent Ebola crisis. It was heartbreaking to hear her account of the tragedy, and the loss of so many people. Their joy was inspiring despite the little they had and all they had endured in recent years. I was deeply impacted by her strength in overwhelming circumstances and her transparency in sharing her journey.’

Published with thanks to NZ Dental Association news, Dec 2019 

maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships

Sharon Walls

Mansare grew up with bowed legs — an ailment often caused by an underlying disease like rickets, and is worsened by malnutrition. The four-year-old had only known life with the orthopaedic condition which made walking and running an exhausting challenge.

After years of watching the small boy struggle with his limited mobility, Mansare’s family were excited to hear the news that treatment for his condition was being offered – for free.  Simone brought her son to the Mercy Ships screening day where approximately 6,000 others had gathered in hopes of receiving the help they needed.

From outside the gate Simone saw a large crowd and didn’t know if they would be able to get through. However, Mansare — plucky despite his young age — slipped through the gate and into the compound. He waved at her from the other side. “If you can’t get through, I will go and stand in line,” he called.

Once she got inside, Simone found Mansare standing in line by himself, unafraid, waving her over to join his spot. “He has always been brave like this,” she said.

This bravery hallmarked his time with Mercy Ships. After he received surgery Mansare spent weeks recovering and relearning how to walk. But even sitting in casts for several weeks couldn’t keep a smile from his face. After starting the physiotherapy program, Mansare was up and running.

Dashing around the dock, his frayed sandals flapping as he ran – and his laughter brought a smile to his mother’s face. “Look at him. Look at him walk,” Simone declared. “He can really play now. Before, he would get tired and come back after ten minutes because the other kids would laugh at him. Now, I have to go find him at the end of the day and bring him back home because he’s so happy to be out playing.”

The sight of an energetic little boy running and playing may not be remarkable to many, but it’s one that Mansare’s family has always hoped for.

“He loves his new body so much,” his mother said. But Mansare’s change goes much deeper than appearances. Now, it’s a challenge to keep him still, and his confidence and joy spill out into everything he does. Mansare seems like a new boy, inside and out!

Surgery has changed our life. He’s happier; I’m happier. He loves himself more. He’s more confident now!

Sharon Walls

It’s easy to see Ibrahim’s joyful spirit. His adorable grin is absolutely infectious, but as soon as the one-year-old tries to stand up, his twisted feet become evident.

His mother, Salimatou, noticed that something was wrong with Ibrahim’s feet as soon as he was born. Both of his feet were bent inwards, a condition which only worsened as Ibrahim grew. Once he began crawling and eventually attempted to walk, Salimatou’s fears grew stronger. She soon realised that something was wrong with her child — something she had no way to fix.

Ibrahim is the youngest of five boys, all of whom keep Salimatou on her feet from dawn to dusk. In order to keep Ibrahim safe, Salimatou would often keep him in a sling on her back, but, she knew that this wouldn’t work as he grew older. With his ability to walk becoming increasingly limited, Ibrahim was facing a future full of difficulties and few options.

One day, Salimatou and her husband heard a radio announcement about a hospital ship that would be sailing into Guinea. After travelling to the Africa Mercy, Ibrahim and his family were hopeful that this would be their chance to find healing for his legs.

Ibrahim was welcomed into the Mercy Ships Ponseti clinic and was soon undergoing treatment to heal his clubfoot. He spent seven weeks in casts, which gently manipulated his feet into a normal position, before undergoing a simple surgery to snip a tendon in his ankles. Afterwards, he was recast and given several more weeks to heal.

Halfway through Ibrahim’s treatment, his mother said, “I can see the difference in his feet already. His feet are getting straighter each week — we can all see it! It makes us so happy.”

While his time in casts was over after leaving the ship, Ibrahim still has some work to do before he is fully healed. He will continue to wear a nighttime brace for years, to ensure his feet stay straight, much like wearing a retainer after having braces removed.

The simplicity of Ibrahim’s treatment is encouraging for other children suffering from clubfoot. The Ponseti treatment doesn’t require a state-of-the-art operating room or cutting edge surgical equipment, but instead relies on time, plaster, patience, and proper training.

Clubfoot program manager Aisling Russell from the UK has brought several local Guinean medical professionals alongside their team throughout the Ponseti process. By providing local hands-on training and letting them be a part of every step of the journey, the Mercy Ships Ponseti team hopes that these locals will be able to continue treating children with clubfoot in Guinea long after the ship sails away.

You don’t have to look far to see the effects that this training is having. Mercy Ships was based in Cameroon the previous year, where the Ponseti team ran similar mentorship programs with local professionals. This year, they brought back a familiar face to lead Ibrahim’s tenotomy procedure: Dr Faustin Atemkeng Tsatedem, a Cameroonian orthopaedic surgeon who received this training during the last field service. He visited Guinea several times to assist with surgeries like Ibrahim’s and to help train a new batch of medical professionals.

“The Ponseti Method of treating clubfoot is the gold standard treatment method used worldwide. Children who complete treatment are then free from deformity and a life of disability,” said Aisling. “In the context of Guinea, this is even more poignant as there is a misunderstanding about the cause of physical deformities that brings shame and limited opportunities for work and marriage. The transformation is obvious, but the lifelong impact is that these children then have a chance to live a life free of shame and the opportunity to work and input to their community.”

He’ll be able to walk like other boys when he grows up. It makes me so happy to see him like this.

Ibrahim is so young that he won’t remember life before his Ponseti treatment. He’ll grow up with feet that carry him where he wants to go, with the only remnant of a former life being the brace he wears at night for the next several years — but his mother will never forget.

Sharon Walls

Amadou refused to be defined by the tumour that had been growing on his face for more than 15 years. To those in his community, 46-year-old Amadou is a doctor, a leader, and a pillar of hope.

Medicine was a clear path for Amadou, who had been a practise nurse for over 20 years, fulfilling his desire to help others. But over the years, his own health deteriorated as he developed a Pleomorphic tumour in his salivary gland that grew slowly and steadily on the side of his face. But his condition did not stop him from caring for his patients.

“I did not ever tell myself ‘because you have this tumour you cannot help others’ — that would not be fair to them,” Amadou said. “Instead, I told myself that I should still try my best to help those around me so that God would help me in return.”

Amadou knew that his own local hospital was not equipped to perform the surgery needed to remove his tumour, so he began to save money in the hopes that he might one day be able to travel to the capital. He hoped he would find help in removing the mass on his face.

One day, as Amadou sat in his clinic, people from his village came rushing in to tell him some exciting news. The man who spent his days helping others might finally be able to find help for himself onboard a hospital ship docked in Conakry, Guinea.

“When I heard about the ship, I was the happiest man,” Amadou said. “I thought, if I get this surgery, I will be a patient ambassador and tell the world about Mercy Ships!”

Amadou made his way to the Africa Mercy to receive the help he needed to continue saving others. After a successful surgery onboard by volunteer medical professionals, Amadou was cleared to go home. Upon his return, it became abundantly clear just how much he meant to his community, as hundreds gathered for his arrival. People dancing and singing lined the streets in celebration as his friends and family welcomed back their well-loved doctor.

“I cannot even begin to describe what this community means to me and how much I love them,” Amadou said. “I believe I love them even more than they seem to love me!”

The story of his healing travelled through his community and soon reached another in need. Soon after he’d returned home, a 37-year-old woman came into this clinic with a cleft lip. Immediately, Amadou travelled for over a day to bring her to nurses from the Africa Mercy, enabling her to receive the same life-changing surgery that he himself had found two months earlier.

Whilst at the ship I learned how they take care of their patients. I want to bring this [knowledge] back to my own clinic.

While waiting for the woman’s recovery, Amadou used his time to tell patients who were waiting for surgery that everything would be okay — that he was a walking testimony of the safe surgery performed on the ship. True to his word, Amadou became the advocate that he promised he’d be!

Sharon Walls

Moussa in his village before surgery.

Moussa’s village seems like it’s on the edge of the world. To reach the nearest large town requires passing through dry underbrush on foot or by motorcycle, crossing a river by canoe, and driving for hours down winding dirt roads.

When his condition first began as the result of an untreated dental complication, Moussa realised that it wasn’t going to go away on its own. He felt helpless. With surgical care costing far more than the rice farmer could afford, he could only use traditional medicine — and pray.

But, when Moussa heard over the radio that Mercy Ships would be hosting a patient selection screening the next day, he immediately left his village and travelled through the night for a chance to be seen by the medical team.

The fifty-five-year-old had lived with the fear for six years. He was terrified the tumour in his mouth wouldn’t stop growing, and he was prepared to journey any distance to be free from it. As the growth developed, Moussa found it increasingly hard to eat, speak, and work. He stopped labouring in the rice fields, leaving his nephew to take the mantle as the provider of the family. Over time, Moussa — once a proud and enigmatic leader in his village — began to feel ashamed of how he looked. He covered his face with a shawl to hid the tumour and kept his eyes downcast. He stopped sharing meals with his family, instead choosing to eat in a separate room so no one would see him struggle to eat.

For Moussa, hours of travel and standing in line were nothing compared to the hope that he might have a chance for a brighter future. When he was told he was eligible to receive surgery, even the daylong bus ride to the port city where the Africa Mercy was docked couldn’t keep Moussa’s joy at bay.

After arriving onboard, Moussa’s tumour was removed and he spent the next several weeks being cared for by nurses as he recovered – from his surgical wound and his emotional scars. During his time onboard the Africa Mercy, he was welcomed into a community and loved by strangers, causing him to slowly step beyond the emotional walls he’d built around himself.

As he began to come out of his shell, his true self emerged. Moussa returned to his village once again confident and proud to see his community. He was celebrated by a crowd reverberating with dancing, singing, and laughter.

‘I feel like a president,’ Moussa said as he shook hands with everyone in sight.

Being welcomed back into his community and once again sharing a meal with his family, Moussa feels his life has changed in more ways than one.
“I would surely have died if not for this surgery,” he said. “I’m very grateful!”

Sharon Walls

Saliou was too young to realize that he was different. At 2 years old, the little boy had no idea that his cleft lip set him apart from the other children. Blissfully unaware, the condition had no damper on Saliou’s personality, which brought joy to everyone he met.

While some might view Saliou’s condition as a reason to feel shame, especially in West Africa, where the lack of medical access can cause a person to live with the defect for a lifetime, Saliou’s grandmother, Ndiane refused to let his condition hinder her love.

“He’s so handsome,” she said while holding his photo.

Despite her admiration for Saliou, Ndiane still hoped that he wouldn’t have to grow up with a cleft lip which, she worried would cause him to become an outcast when he was older.

“If he didn’t get surgery, he would be different from the other children,” she said.

Unfortunately, Saliou’s family didn’t have the means to find healing for him. With very minimal access to safe, affordable surgery, Ndiane resorted to the only thing she could do — she prayed for a miracle. She held on to the hope that one day, her sweet Saliou would be healed.

After two years of waiting on a miracle, Ndiane was thrilled to hear about a hospital ship that was docked in the capital city of Senegal. This devoted grandmother traveled 12 hours to bring Saliou to the Africa Mercy for a surgery that would change his life forever.

“When I heard about the ship’s arrival, I was relieved,” she said. “Then, I made the decision to stop everything and bring him because this will impact his future!”

Ndaine’s heart swelled with joy and gratitude after Saliou’s operation — her grandson was finally healed! Now the young boy’s future looks brighter than ever.

“I’m giving thanks to God and the people at Mercy Ships. I didn’t have anywhere to get surgery for Saliou, and they did that for me.”

Sharon Walls

‘It has hands down been the best thing I have ever done,’ Lauren concludes as she reflects on her three months onboard the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, Africa Mercy, currently docked in Senegal, West Africa. The Morrinsville the occupational therapist’s professional skills were stretched to the limit as she worked in the Mercy Ships rehabilitation team.

Fellow Kiwi nurse Bec with Mohammed and Lauren

‘I went to the Mercy Ship to assist with hand therapy, but I have left with so much more than I could ever imagine,’ Lauren enthusiastically explains. ‘I was challenged professionally with conditions I had never seen. My entire caseload consisted of children, which was incredible, but also extremely difficult as I don’t generally work with children at home.’

Lauren’s years of work at Thames and Waikato hospitals in the hand therapy, and burns and scar management department prepared her for the extreme cases she would encounter in West Africa. Her skill set is vital to the successful outcome for the hospital ship’s patients who undergo operations onboard after their third-degree burns were untreated. In the developing nations Mercy Ships serves, there is little access to medical services; when accidents happen people often suffer life-long consequences. If a severe burn heals without medical care, scar tissue will form and immobilise the joint, permanently disabling the sufferer.

Free surgery to release the scars provides half the answer. Lauren and the rehabilitation team then work with the patients post-surgery to help them regain basic function; to walk normally, to hold a spoon, and even lift their arms above their heads – often for the first time in many years. Only then is complete healing within reach.

Lauren explains the life-long impact of the injuries and scaring for her plastic surgery patients. ‘Most of our patients had burn contractures to their hands, elbows or arm pits from a very young age, as young as two days old. They have had contracting scars for 3-20 years and had adapted to this way of life. They altered their motor patterns so they could function in everyday life.’

Lauren made enduring friendships during her volunteer service on the hospital ship

The 24-year-old was so impacted by her tour-of-duty that she has signed up to return in February for another four-month volunteer service. Lauren feels she grew personally as well as professionally as part of the international crew, ‘I was able to build relationships with patients, crew members and day crew that are so rich. I made new friends, was immersed in African culture, and learned a new language (very little, but enough to get by and have my patients excited that I would try). I was challenged spiritually in my beliefs, my reason. I was shown that love and people are more important than anything else. I went to Senegal for work, but I left with a richness to life that I will cherish forever.’

Mercy Ships spends 10 months each year in a West African nation providing free essential surgery for people living in in extreme hardship, and is crewed by medical, maritime and general volunteers from around the world.

‘Mohammed loves a hand hold and his favourite English word is Loz. He hates smiling at the camera. He loves his exercises the most of all of my patients, and will me and join everyone else’s treatment sessions as well as his own. He reminds his mum when it’s exercise time.

Video: Watch Gamai’s story

 

Sharon Walls